Sunday, February 15, 2015

How the Mighty Hath Fallen: Rhetoric: A Very Short Introduction by Richard Toyes & Words Like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama

More scholarly work
Lots of good examples, relaxed narrative

Rhetoric, the art and practice of persuasion through language, was once the cornerstone of Western political, legal, and educational systems. The Greeks invented it, the Romans refined it, the Middle Ages put it at the pinnacle of the educational system, and the Moderns updated into the world of print and democracy. But today, few people use the term “rhetoric” without adding the prefix “mere”. President Obama, starting back when he was only candidate Obama, received frequent derision (by opponents) for his outstanding oratory. “Just words”“, all talk, no action”, and so on. What is rhetoric that it once was the crowning jewel of an educated person, but now is more often the subject of derision? 

Both of these books address the nature, substance, and history of rhetoric. The Toyes book examines rhetoric from a more academic perspective (it’s part of the Oxford University Press “Very Short Introduction” series), and Lieth’s book approaches the topic in a more relaxed style. In fact, both books cover much the same territory, especially in their narrative about the history of rhetoric. Toyes spends more time on contemporary thinkers and permutations of rhetorical practice while Leith devotes more time to breaking down the sub-topics of the discipline and discussing prominent examples. Leith's examples include Satan (channeled by John Milton), Lincoln, Churchill (does anyone writing about rhetoric not discuss Churchill?), Hitler (not all popular speakers are good guys), Martin Luther King, Jr. (like Churchill, a must), Obama, and the anonymous (to the public) speechwriters of politicians in the modern era.

Each book provides numerous examples of rhetoric in action, and each provides a great deal of ammunition to those like me who believe rhetoric a useful art and discipline of the highest order. As someone whose profession involves “pleading” on behalf of others and “arguing” cases, I only wish that I’d had a deeper and more practiced introduction and study of rhetoric much earlier in my education. So to me, both books are preaching to the choir. However, even now, after having made up some ground of early deficiencies in my learning, I gained a good deal from these two works. Toyes, for instance, really focuses on rhetoric in the broader context of the contemporary world, touching on how, for instance, Kenneth Burke’s work changes the focus of rhetoric from “persuasion” to “identification”. He also brings in the work of J.L. Austin, whose How to Do Things WithWords brings a new classification scheme into use that enhances our understanding of rhetoric and language. Leith, on the other hand, focuses more on the nuts and bolts of rhetoric, things like invention, figures of speech, the occasions of rhetoric, and the means of persuasion set forth in Aristotle’s foundational work (ethos, logos, and pathos). 

I enjoyed both books and learned a good deal from each. For beginners, I’d definitely recommend the Leith book with its numerous examples and consideration of the fundamental tenants of rhetoric. For those more acquainted with the topic, Toyes book puts rhetoric into a larger context, especially in the contemporary world.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

A Few Lessons from Sherlock Holmes by Peter Bevelin

Small book, big ideas

Peter Bevelin’s short book is a compendium of quotes from the stories of Sherlock Holmes, other writings by Arthur Conan Doyle, and some writings of Doyle’s contemporaries. Before each set of quotes, Bevelin identifies a theme, such as “Practice is a good instructor and teaches us to where to look and what to look for”. (Bevelin, Peter (2013-06-24). A Few Lessons from Sherlock Holmes (Kindle Locations 156-157). MX Publishing. Kindle Edition.) The quotes, primarily from stories of Holmes, then illustrate or elucidate the theme. Perhaps that second most commonly cited source comes from Thomas McCrae, who published a work in a Canadian medical journal in 1914  titled “The Method of Zadig in the Practice of Medicine”, which discusses many of the themes common to Holmes’ methods. 
This short (65-page) book is a compendium of wisdom that one can dip into at random to reinforce an inquiring and questioning mind. Its single sentence themes and brief quotes make it like a commonplace book. In its themes and conclusions (and often in its selections of quotes from the Holmes treasury), it’s very similar to Maria Konnikova’s Mastermind:How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. But where Bevelin limits his quotes to Holmes and his contemporaries, Konnikova riffs into contemporary research and thought. Both are valuable and fun—how could they not be when led by the great detective?

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Man Who Loved China by Simon Winchester

My paperback bought here in Suzhou
Simon Winchester's The Man Who Loved China tells the story of an eccentric English biochemist who, through the gateway of a love affair with Chinese student, traveled to China and fell in love with Chinese civilization. Winchester is an accomplished and widely praised storyteller, and in this book he plies his trade well. The subject of his book made his task easier. The man who loved China was Joseph Needham. By his early 20s, Needham had established himself as a scientific genius with a broad, inquisitive mind, and as a bit of an eccentric.

Young Joseph Needham
America has its share of eccentric academics, but the Brits seem to be always one up. Needham fits the picture of an eccentric British academic: tall, gangly, wearing oval glasses, unruly hair, riding a bicycle around the confines of Cambridge with the mortarboard hat and Harry Potter robes flowing behind him. (Okay, I don't know if he wore a mortarboard and flowing robes on his bicycle, but the rest of the description I believe accurate). In addition, he was quite fond of the ladies, and they quite popular of him. Yet he remained married for over 60 years—in an “open marriage” with his wife Dorothy. Indeed, as a part of this unusual marital arrangement, he conducted an affair (if this proves the right word) with a Chinese graduate student, Lu Gwei-djen, who came to Cambridge from Shanghai. This romantic relationship lasted from the late 1930’s, when they first met, to their eventual marriage (after the death of Needham's first wife, Dorothy) until Lu Gwei-djin's death. Lu Gwei-djen lived about 100 meters from Needham and Dorothy during the Dorothy’s lifetime, and despite what one might otherwise assume, this arrangement was apparently quite alright with Mrs. Needham.) Needham's encounter with Lu Gwei-djen prompted Needham’s interest in China and Chinese culture, and this led to a visit to China for the first time in 1943, during the chaos of the Second World War. One might add that Needham was Christian (of a liberal, rather unorthodox sort) and a committed leftist. A man of no small incongruities.
Lu Gwei-djin in late 1930s

But while this is makes for interesting background, it is Needham's eventual devotion to China and to the mysteries of Chinese civilization that makes for the story. Needham was willing to travel to China as a British diplomat and scientific liaison during the worst times of the war. His enthusiasm for all things in China, from modern factories and industrial techniques to ancient scrolls, show him to have been a truly Renaissance man. He learned written and spoken Chinese and took up all manner of Chinese customs and practices. He developed contacts within the nationalist camp and he became friends with Zhou En-lai. It was during this initial foray into China that Needham decided on what would become his life's work, Science and Civilization in China. This was in part sparked by the question, now known as “Needham's question," about why, after leading the West in technology up until about 1500, China fell behind western Europe and its progeny in science, technology, and industrialization. Also, Needham recognized that China had many firsts in technological development that far surpassed Western achievements up until around 1500, much to the surprise of Euro-centrics then in the majority.

Elder Needham & Zhou En-lai
For all his brilliance and dedication, Needham was not always a wise. During the Korean War he led an investigation into whether the US had used germ warfare against the North Koreans and Chinese. Relying on what he naively assumed were accurate and truthful reports from Chinese scientific colleagues, he concluded that the allegations were true. In the age of McCarthyism and Cold War paranoia, this was a blunder. (Winchester concludes that there is no convincing evidence that the US used germ warfare, and subsequent records show that the Chinese fabricated the allegations for propaganda.)

Retails at $255.19
A happy ending to the story comes about despite Needham’s having been ostracized by the British establishment for his report. He rehabilitated himself and engaged Cambridge University Press in the publication of his Science and Civilization in China project. The first volume proved a critical and commercial success. Between the mid-1950s up through Needham's death in 1992 (and continuing after his death), the multi-volume project has continued. Needham remained active on the project up until the time of his death.

Winchester concludes the book with a look at contemporary China, focusing on the metropolitan area of Chongqing, were Needham had spent time (in addition to having been in Kunming and Chengdu, among many other locations in China). Chongqing is now a huge metropolitan area, perhaps the largest in the world. With rising office towers, dense thick smog, and all the trappings of modern culture, Needham would have a hard time recognizing the city. It represents China undergoing rapid change. The degree of change that China has undergone since Needham's first visit during the midst of WWII is almost unfathomable. The ties of contemporary China to its historical past are visible, but loosened under the corrosive effect of industrialization, modernization, and consumer capitalism. One wonders what Joseph Needham would make of it all.

As one living in contemporary China and as one with some acquaintance (through reading) with the world of British academia, this book provided a double treat. Needham's genius and enthusiasm remains vibrant and compelling throughout the book. Winchester deftly balances Needham's personal and professional interests. For anyone interested in the work of a genius and the world of China, this book will provide a rewarding read.

Monday, February 2, 2015

The Principles of History & Other Writings in the Philosophy of History by R.G. Collingwood

Hardcover image but read on Kindle
Sometimes awe and modesty compel us to brevity where otherwise we’d feel need to blather on at length. This will be a short post, not because the subject doesn’t merit a lengthier treatment. To the contrary, it merits so much more. So I hope that this post is just in the way of a trailer or preview of what I hope in time to consider at more length.

R.G. Collingwood is a late arrival on my radar. In fact, he was probably a part of my undergraduate syllabus in my Philosophy of History course, but he didn’t stick. Now, I’m learning about him, as he keeps popping up, as it were. Last year in India, I bought a copy of The Idea of History, his masterwork, which The Times Literary Supplement selected as one of the most influential books published since the Second World War. But I haven’t read that book yet. So why this book, less famous and published much later?

First, it’s on Kindle, which means that it is accessible to me know (unlike my copies--yes, copies--of The Idea of History now in storage). But perhaps an even better reason—or excuse—for reading this first book comes from the history of the writings themselves.

Collingwood in his prime
By the late 1930s, Collingwood, then in his early forties, knew that his health was failing. He went on a writing and publication flurry. He’d lectured at Oxford on various occasions in the 1930s about his philosophy of history and historiography. In 1939, during a long cruise intended to bolster his health, he began writing The Principles of History, a companion of sorts to his book The Principles of Art. However, because of his failing health, the advent of WWII, and two other writing projects he wanted to complete, he set the project aside. Death took him in early 1943, with his work about history unpublished in book form. After his death, literary executor, T.M. Knox, brought together several of Collingwood’s writings, including lecture notes, and published them through Oxford University Press as The Idea of History. And as I mentioned, it proved quite a success (at least according the standards of its peer group.) Knox left out some papers, but the source was considered exhausted. Except it wasn’t.

In 1995, archivists at Oxford University Press discovered the (uncompleted) manuscript of The Principles of History that Collingwood has written during his 1939 cruise to Indonesia. They also discovered some papers on other topics as well. The new materials didn’t reveal any startling new positions or arguments made by Collingwood, but they helped to complete his positions and to reveal his overall plan. He'd intended to publish two volumes on the subject of history. The Idea of History covered much of this area, but not all of it, nor in the manner that Collingwood had intended. The Principles of History helps to fill the gaps. Given the depth and significance of Collingwood’s thought, this book provides us with even deeper insights into his unique and compelling ways of thinking about history.

I hope to explore the topic of history and knowledge in depth in a project that I’ve dubbed “history as a way of knowing” (or perhaps history as the way of knowing), which will trace the ideas of Collingwood, Owen Barfield, and John Lukacs and show how their thoughts can inform our thinking. In the meantime, if you’ve any interest in how we think about history and how we judge its fruits, you must read this book.

P.S. I will also post this review on my Persuasive Life blog with some additional comments there about evidence, imagination, detection, and the like that Collingwood addresses and that have a lot to do with courtroom issues.

Monday, January 26, 2015

How to Fail at Almost Everything& Still Win Big: Kind of My Life Story by Scott Adams

Good advice delivered with humor
I have a weakness for self-help books. The sad truth is that I’ve known for a long time that my self needs help—of all kinds. I also like to learn and try out new ideas and ways of living. This reading history—this quest—for an improved self hasn’t cured my many flaws, but on the whole, I think I’d be the worse off for not having tried some of the ideas that I’ve encountered. Of course, the quality of the advice that you get from what we call self-help books varies immensely. I think it appropriate, albeit unusual, to consider Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca—even Socrates—as a part of the self-help literature. The Greeks thought of philosophy as a way of life, with concepts, reasoning, and knowledge as tools for leading a good life. And this is the ultimate aim of the self-help literature, isn’t it? Religious practices (as distinct from limiting religion to a set of beliefs) all more or less seek to regulate and thereby improve the self (or soul). (Buddhists also might object to the use of “the self”, as they belief it an illusion, but I think most would agree its a handy one and something—if not someone—benefits from the Noble Eightfold Path). More recently, one can cite Ben Franklin, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and William James as self-help gurus in the their literate and cultured ways. Just this morning I read excerpts and commentary upon Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness, wherein the great mathematician and philosopher dispenses advice. 

Of course, a great deal of hokum and P.T. Barnum-like salesmanship pervades the field as well. From Norman Vincent Peale to Dale Carnegie to Napoleon Hill to Stephen Covey, we find a middle-brow sources of advice, often over-sold or simplistic, but good for nuggets of wisdom and for exercising the crap-detector. Some writers have helpful suggestions for improving morning rituals, getting more work done, and becoming a better conversation partner. Nassim Nicolas Taleb provides a good contemporary example of an intellectual who dispenses advice and opinions, not under the guise of self-help, but through thoughtful and entertaining essays that provide can provide benefits. One has to shop carefully, or you end up with a bunch of sale junk in your reading basket, but if you’re discerning, you can provide yourself (it’s who your giving a gift to, right?) some helpful mind-stuff. 

Scott Adams, author, cartoonist, advice-giver
This brings me to Scott Adams. Farnum Street (one my must-read blog list) posted an excerpt and commentary based on Adams’s combination autobiography and self-help book. In fact, the unique blend of personal story and insight into how to conduct a better life makes this a fun read. I’ve never read Dilbert cartoons regularly—Adams’s significant claim to fame—so I wouldn’t have read the book unless Farnum Street had included a blurb about how Adams denigrates “goals” and promotes “systems”. My inner Taoist had rebelled against goals in a way that I had never been able to quite understand. I’ve accomplished things in life, helped raise a family, succeeded in my profession, married well, and so on, without having been a goal-driven person. In fact, I had this inkling that goals were a rather abstract and perhaps in some way faulty way of going about things, and Adams clarified the issue for me. Adams writes:

To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. That’s literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose ten pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal— if you reach it at all— feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary. That feeling wears on you. In time, it becomes heavy and uncomfortable. It might even drive you out of the game. If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or set new goals and reenter the cycle of permanent presuccess failure.

Adams, Scott (2013-10-22). How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life (p. 32). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
If you have your crap-detector on, you will think that any system as a system must have a goal or purpose, and that any goal must have a means or system for reaching the goal. Adams agrees. He recognizes the inherent relation of goals and systems, but he goes on the identify the fundamental differences in perspective between the two attitudes:

[T]hinking of goals and systems as very different concepts has power. Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous presuccess failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out. Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do. The goals people are fighting the feeling of discouragement at each turn. The systems people are feeling good every time they apply their system. That’s a big difference in terms of maintaining your personal energy in the right direction. . . . For our purposes, let’s say a goal is a specific objective that you either achieve or don’t sometime in the future. A system is something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run. If you do something every day, it’s a system. If you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal.

Adams, Scott (2013-10-22). How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life (pp. 32-33). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
This is the gem that convinced me to read the book. I think that Adams is on to something. If my goal is to lose 20 pounds, I can do it and then what? If I’m like most people, I’ll put it right back on. But if my system is to eat smartly and keep myself healthy and fit, then that’s a daily set of tasks that allow to act (with success) each day. However, lest you think he goes to far, much later in the book Adams writes:

Humans will always think in terms of goals. Our brains are wired that way. But goals make sense only if you also have a system that moves you in the right direction.

Adams, Scott (2013-10-22). How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life (p. 228). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
Adams throughout the book proves himself a balanced and nuanced thinker, as well as displaying a fun sense of humor. 

As befits a cartoonist—who must get a message across in a small set of boxes with a few drawings and words—Adams praises the benefits of simplification, even at the expense of optimization. For him, the best way of doing things is usually the simplest because it is the most robust. (Although he doesn’t cite Nassim Taleb here, his reasoning tracks a key argument of Taleb about robustness and antifragility.) Adams goes on to list a number of different practices, acquisitions, and hacks to put yourself in the best way in this world. His list includes: 

  • Goals are for losers.
  • Your mind isn’t magic.
  • It’s a moist computer you can program.
  • The most important metric to track is your personal energy.
  • Every skill you acquire doubles your odds of success.
  • Happiness is health plus freedom.
  • Luck can be managed, sort of.
  • Conquer shyness by being a huge phony (in a good way).
  • Fitness is the lever that moves the world.
  • Simplicity transforms ordinary into amazing.
Adams, Scott (2013-10-22). How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life (p. 3). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Adams details these fundamentals in the course of the book. As with the biggest points, his tips and practices usually make a lot of sense. On diet, I don’t agree completely—although he’s all over the simple carb problem. However, I’m not sure that any two people on planet Earth agree about diet (where personal bias and taste account for a great deal!). Also, if you follow through to the end the book you find that Adams believes in experimentation and observation: he’s in the pragmatic camp for dealing with the world. This attitude allowed him to locate a unique and crucial cure to a severe voice impairment that he developed. It also led him to recommend affirmations as a way of realizing goals (did he just use that word or was that me?). In other words, he’s dealt with some vexing and troubling issue,s as well as the day-to-day hassles and challenges of life that we’ve all encountered, and he’s enjoyed some success. He’s allowed observation and experience to overcome skepticism, as in his use of affirmations. I appreciate someone who is that open-minded. Sometimes things work in ways we just don’t understand or that don’t make sense to us. But working knowledge can—and should—come before theory. 

If you read one contemporary self-help book this year (sorry, he can’t go ahead of the Greeks, the Romans, or the earlier Americans) and you want some chuckles to go along with many helpful suggestions and insights, then I recommend this book. And, as one final gem, I’ll leave you with Adams’s own recap of his happiness formula:

  • Eat right.
  • Exercise.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Imagine an incredible future (even if you don’t believe it).
  • Work toward a flexible schedule.
  • Do things you can steadily improve at.
  • Help others (if you’ve already helped yourself).
  • Reduce daily decisions to routine.
Adams, Scott (2013-10-22). How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life (pp. 178-179). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.